May 5

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

May 5 - 5:5:1766 Boston Gazette
Boston Gazette (May 5, 1766).

“BEST neat Shoe & Knee Chapes.”

What were shoe and knee chapes? Colonial readers would have instantly recognized shoe and knee chapes as buckles. Eighteenth-century consumers had an extensive vocabulary for personal adornment, from the assortment of textiles frequently listed in advertisements to the perukes examined yesterday. A visit to an eighteenth-century shop likely involved a conversation that in many ways would be partially incomprehensible today.

May 5 - Chapes
Shoe and knee buckles.  These photos are on the same scale, demonstrating the relative size of shoe and knee buckles.

John Symmes imported his “Shoe & Knee Chapes” from London, but he likely customized them according to the taste and budget of his customers. He concluded his advertisement by noting that he was not solely a shopkeeper; instead, “All Sorts of Goldsmith’s and Jeweller’s Work” could be “done in the neatest Manner at said Shop.” According to Carolyn L. White (in American Artifacts of Personal Adornment, 1680-1820), buckles were frequently decorated with a variety of jewels or their paste substitutes (since buckles were frequently lost). White documents an entire industry devoted to making, adorning, and retailing shoe and knee chapes in the eighteenth century.

May 5 - Earl Portrait of David Baldwin
Ralph Earl, Portrait of David Baldwin (1790).  High Museum of Art, Atlanta.  Note that Baldwin wears both shoe and knee buckles.

Like other historians of material culture in early America, White consulted newspaper advertisements extensively to reconstruct the merchandise and services available in the eighteenth century. Again we see the enduring value of advertising from the period: it gives us glimpses of daily life 250 years ago and, in some cases, provides the most complete information about the business activities and personal possessions of colonists.

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